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Remembering Georgia Congressman John Lewis


We're going to revisit our top story now - the death of Congressman John Lewis after battling pancreatic cancer. He was 80 years old. The 17-term congressman is well known for his role in some of the most consequential events of the civil rights movement, the so-called Bloody Sunday march and the March on Washington, among others. But he has another major legacy, and it sits in sight of the Washington Monument. We're talking about the National Museum of African American History and Culture. From member station WABE in Atlanta, Emma Hurt has this remembrance.

EMMA HURT, BYLINE: It's September, 2016. President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama are sitting next to their predecessors, George and Laura Bush, on a stage in front of the Smithsonian's newest museum listening to Patti LaBelle.


PATTI LABELLE: (Singing) I was born by the river in a little tent...

HURT: Thousands were there at the dedication ceremony of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, four years after the groundbreaking, 13 years after Bush signed the plan into law and a century after the idea was first proposed by Black Civil War veterans.


LABELLE: (Singing) It's been a long, long time coming, but I know the change gonna (ph) come.

HURT: And sitting behind the two former presidents, Georgia Congressman John Lewis.


JOHN LEWIS: We gather here today to dedicate a building. But this place is more than a building. It is a dream come true.

HURT: Lewis is largely credited with turning that dream into a reality. He introduced the bill in every congressional session he served for 15 years until it finally passed in 2003.

NIKEMA WILLIAMS: That is Congressman Lewis' life's work.

HURT: This is Georgia State Senator Nikema Williams, a friend of Lewis'.

WILLIAMS: And now we have this that will be here for generations and generations to come to come and see the history and the legacy and the heritage of Black people in this country. And that would have never happened had it not been for Congressman Lewis being resilient.

HURT: Lonnie Bunch was the founding director of the museum. He sat next to Lewis on that stage at the dedication ceremony. When he first got the job before the museum had staff or a location, Bunch remembers having to meet the members of Congress who helped make it happen.

LONNIE BUNCH: But most important one to me was John Lewis. And we really just talked about, this is an opportunity to help people understand themselves in ways that no other museum does.

HURT: Bunch says he and Lewis shared a vision for the project - for a museum that isn't just for African Americans but for everyone.

BUNCH: The African American experience is bigger than one community. It's an experience that taught us a lot about the meaning of citizenship, about freedom, how our own identity is shaped by protest. But more than that, it shaped how we believe in what America is.

HURT: Bunch says Lewis believed that remembering isn't nostalgia. It's an essential element of who we have to be to move forward. Here's Lewis again at the dedication.


LEWIS: As these doors open, it is my hope that each and every person who visit this beautiful museum will walk away deeply inspired, feel a greater respect for the dignity and the worth of every human being.

HURT: The National Museum of African American History and Culture - one of many accomplishments in a long life of civil rights advocacy by the late Georgia Congressman John Lewis.

For NPR News, I'm Emma Hurt in Atlanta.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRIS KASPER'S "CITY BY THE SEA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.